Wintry weather brings its own problems to the rail network. Snow covers tracks, platforms and car parks while ice affects trains’ ability to accelerate and brake. It also freezes points – which is why many are fitted with point heaters, to stop them freezing – and even forms on overhead wires, disrupting power supplies and causing spectacular sparks if a train passes under them.
But there are other hazards too. Icicles can form inside tunnels, hanging down from the roof, and these can either fall on or be knocked onto passing trains, possibly causing significant damage. Icicles also appear on bridges and other structures, such as overhead gantries.
Some icicles are quite small, but some can be as thick as a man’s arm and weigh tens of kilos, so the hazard is obvious.
The only answer is for Network Rail engineers to go out and knock them off first, before the trains do. It’s cold and unpleasant work, but it needs to be done.
A good example of the icicle problem often occurs at Standedge tunnel, on the route between Leeds/Huddersfield and Manchester. It is around three miles long, so the temperature inside it stays at around eight degrees all year round. However, when outside temperatures drop, icicles often appear at each end of the tunnel, and then maintenance teams have to remove them.
Network Rail operates special winter trains, complete with all the right gear to tackle whatever the bad weather brings. Hot air blowers, steam jets, anti-freeze equipment, brushes, scrapers and snowploughs clear snow and ice from the tracks to keep services moving, as well as maintenance teams who knock icicles down by hand using poles and scrapers.
When snow is forecast, Network Rail works with train operators to fit snow plough attachments to the front of trains. Empty trains, known as ghost trains, also run overnight to keep the tracks clear.
Chris Gee, operations director for Network Rail’s North and East route, said: “Work to remove the ice from Standedge Tunnel is vital, so passengers who need to make essential journeys can travel on this key route, which connects West Yorkshire and Manchester.
“Winter is always challenging and I’m proud of our teams who work tirelessly in all weathers to monitor the railway, maintain the tracks and make sure trains can run safely. They’re out day and night in freezing conditions, but the cold never bothers them anyway.
“All year round, we plan ahead for snow and ice, as well as strong wind, heavy rain and extreme heat in summer, so services can continue.”